My life without a car
September 27, 2005
When my car died in March 2004, it gave me a new life.As I drove through Glenwood Canyon, the Honda sedan mysteriously started slowing, so I shifted into second gear and became stuck there. I couldn’t press the 20-year-old relic to do more than 30 mph and the speedometer slid even lower in Basalt. A burning smell was noticeable by Holland Hills.I sweet-talked the faithful old steed as far as the Old Snowmass Conoco. It coasted into the driveway, the steering failed, it stopped with a cough in front of Midstate Motors, and would not start again.
Mechanic Bill explained that the clutch had burned up, there was at least $1500 in repairs, or it would cost around $200 to have my Honda towed to the scrap heap.The answer was easy. In more than 30 years in Aspen, I have been lucky to live within walking distance of work. I realized my car stayed mostly in storage on city streets. Without missing a beat, I said to Bill, “If you want it, it’s yours!”I cleaned out the glove box, asked him to remove the license plates, patted the Honda’s hood in thanks for a lot of great adventures and road trips (Darn – should have taken a last snapshot!), canceled my insurance and mailed the title to Bill the next day.I suddenly felt very light.However, two days later I called the local car-sharing program, Roaring Fork Valley Vehicles. I still needed a set of wheels in the wings. It took all of 90 minutes to fill out paperwork, learn the reservation system and take a driving test with RFVV Director Gavin Seedorf.Since then, it’s been handy having a car to buy a Christmas tree, bring home plants from the nursery or eat dinner with friends who live far off the bus line. But I rarely use my membership in the community car-sharing program – instead I use my feet.The joy of walkingFor me, living in Aspen is like living in Manhattan or San Francisco – all are great walking towns. I bet I walk more than 1,000 miles a year.Aspen’s downtown area is a six-block-square grid, with alleys bisecting the blocks. Walking routes vary, crossing bridges and parks, passing luscious gardens, sumptuous homes and old cottages, and through the historic grid.I believe walkers fall deeply in love with their community because they know their surroundings so intimately. I know where there’s a new dog to greet and pet, where a tree has been planted, or when a bush will be in full bloom. I know which sidewalks are icy at 7:30 in the morning, where the pretty shortcuts are, and where streetlights illuminate the dark after a scary movie.I also know people and their routines. I know what time Sheriff Braudis is usually perched on the picnic table outside the courthouse, taking a cigarette break or conferring with a deputy. I know the handsome crop of doormen at the Hotel Jerome, who seem to change over every six months. There’s Doug, a property manager who’s always pruning, raking and keeping an eye on the entire block. He calls out, “How’s Sara doing today?” and then gives me an update on the neighborhood construction projects.The area near the Hopkins Avenue bridge is being transformed from ski-bum shacks and miners’ cottages to grand stone, wood and glass edifices with peculiar projections for peering at Aspen Mountain. It’s a wonderful show to watch old cabins being sheathed, lifted, moved and transfigured into entryways or libraries on the front of mansions.At another site, an old drainage ditch became a lovely stream lined with carefully selected river rock. It meanders through a yard of drought-resistant plants, under the public trail, down the bank and into the river.One of the dog-walkers (who voluntarily walks Parker, a dog belonging to a foreman at one of the neighborhood construction sites) has become a special feature of my morning commute to The Aspen Times. Jean is a standout with her sun-protection garb of umbrella and cotton gardener gloves. She always greets me, “Another beautiful day in paradise!” I concur, and she responds, “We are so blessed.” This exchange went on for several months.One day Jean looked at the bags I was schlepping to Susie’s consignment shop and asked, “What have you got?” I offered her my rejected lap throw to keep her warm in her armchair (Obviously we’ve gleaned a few details about each other.). Jean strode away with a cozy new living-room accessory.The next week she stopped to tell me there was a box outside her front door. “Stop and get it now, honey. It’s not too big to carry. And don’t share it with anyone – it’s for you.” I discovered a box of Sees candy.
Beside people sightings, I’ve also encountered wild Aspen. One rainy afternoon on the Rio Grande Trail, I admired the speed of a huge black dog as it ran from the riverbank across Patsy Newbury Park. As it cleared the steep hillside to the Eagles Club with four running leaps, I realized it was a bear. I was breathless.Midday, three weeks ago, I sprinted down the incline from Park Avenue to the Hopkins Avenue bridge and came to a screeching halt as a yearling bear darted in front of me on its way to the river.During our summer of the bears in 2004, 1 regularly attached bear bells to jingle-jangle from my purse strap. One night a driver called from a passing car, “I thought maybe Santa Claus visited Aspen in August!”I’ve also seen several foxes – some sit boldly at the edge of the trail, staring at me and hoping a cat may be trailing behind. Watching a low-flying “V” of honking geese following the river from Hallam Lake to Stillwater brings my heart to my throat every time.My one encounter with a wild creature on two legs was during the first X Games. A very drunk young man approached as I was walking home after midnight from my late shift at the newspaper. I think he had triggered an alarm at an upscale townhouse, and it was so piercing that I covered my ears. I thought uh-oh, this guy’s looking for a place to pass out.”Are you going home?” he slurred pleadingly.”I’m going this way, but you want to go that way,” I said in my most motherly voice and turned him firmly in the opposite direction, headed downtown. I gave him a slight push, and he staggered toward the city lights.In decades of walking in Aspen, that’s been my only incident with man as beast.
Life without a car is a good life. No matter how late I am in the morning or how tired I am after work, my walk is the in-between time that prepares me for the day or clears my head before arriving home.The season can determine my route. On cold winter mornings, I stop at Zélé for a café latté and freshly baked cinnamon twist. At the end of a hot day in front of a computer screen, I choose the Rio Grande Trail along the Roaring Fork River and through the park, where the shade and grass, and children wading in the pond cool me more than an air-conditioned car.Walking is also good thinking time. A problem works itself out on a walk, especially by the river. I remember reading about a philosopher who sets her alarm for 4 a.m. to sit quietly and think before her family wakes.Life without a car takes planning, determining what errands can be bundled together and scheduling a heavy load for the last stop. Living alone, I can carry my week’s groceries in two canvas bags or get on the bus, with stops just outside the grocery store and my house.Walking can save time; I smugly watch the cars circling through City Market’s lot for a parking space, and I stride out in high boots through deep snow past neighbors as they warm up their cars and scrape their windshields. I can also say with certainty that the bus is hands-down the fastest way to get to the ski slopes – unless you have a live-in chauffeur.A car in my future?Do I feel confined without a car? No.There are so many great day hikes right outside my front door, and the bus deposits me at trailheads off Maroon Creek and at Sunnyside. If I want to get to the high country, I hitch a ride with hiking companions and buy the beer or gas (whichever fuel is running low).
If I were offered a car, would I take it? My former husband, Dave, said he wanted me to have his Jeep Wagoneer. I answered, “But it’s a gift …””Yes, Sara, it’s a gift – I want to give you my car.””I mean, it’s a gift not driving – but thanks anyway.”As this point, life is going way too fast. So I slow down and walk.Sara Garton’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org